Thu, Dec 20, 2018 - Page 8 News List

The threat posed by backdoor programs

By Lu Li-shih 呂禮詩

A furor has blown up over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies, while she was transiting at Canada’s Vancouver International Airport on Dec. 1. Canadian police arrested Meng in accordance with the US’ request to extradite her on suspicion of breaching US trade sanctions against Iran and involvement in bank fraud.

In Taiwan, discussion about Huawei has mostly been about its sponsorship of various activities, its industrial supply chain and matters of national security. The first two issues refer to the competitive strategies of individual companies and have nothing to do with the public interest. The third aspect, concerning Huawei’s potential effect on national security, cannot be ignored.

Although opinions differ as to whether Huawei products contain backdoor programs, Chinese-made drones have already shown how such programs could be used for manipulation.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and his wife visited Hong Kong in June last year, and again when Xi attended the opening of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge in October, Chinese drone manufacturer DJI used its drones’ geofencing function to prevent them from flying in the vicinity, on the grounds that it has a duty to teach its customers to fly their drones responsibly and safely.

This shows how powerful backdoors really are, and if a similar thing were done with information and communications equipment the consequences would be more serious.

Chinese laws — such as the National Security Law and Cybersecurity Law enacted by the National People’s Congress in 2015 and last year respectively — call on all organizations and citizens to support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence work.

This codification of the conduct of national intelligence work in China and abroad by individuals and private companies makes one all the more suspicious about the Chinese government’s intentions, and it makes it difficult for companies, such as ZTE and Huawei, that have been accused of malpractice, to prove their innocence.

As to the effect of backdoor programs, Sebastian Heilmann, founding president of German think tank the Mercator Institute for China Studies, wrote in his book Red Swan: How Unorthodox Policy-Making Facilitated China’s Rise that if individuals became data elements, there would be such a huge power difference between them and those who use data to control them that anyone who resists the authorities would have no chance of organizing.

When information and communications companies use network and big data technologies to achieve the synergy of “digital Leninism,” it is about ordinary people giving up their personal rights in return for digital services, and it leads to the spiral of silence that generates a digital authoritarianism beyond anything George Orwell imagined in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Taiwan’s armed forces are forbidden from using Chinese-made mobile phones. When the National Communications Commission awarded 4G telecom licenses in 2013, it stipulated that operators were not allowed to use Chinese-made core network and base station equipment.

Nonetheless, Chinese manufacturers use low pricing to compete and grab markets. If backdoor programs are present, they could still be used to manipulate network data and change social preferences.

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